- Fall is graduate school application time! Many of my former students are interested in pursuing a PhD, and are asking me for my advice on applying to grad school. Great!
Here are some of my top tips, and a suggested template of a letter to contact a potential advisor at the end:
- Clarify your motivation for getting a PhD. The more clearly you can articulate this, the more convincing you'll be as an applicant. While there are many important components of graduate training, the basic point of getting a PhD is to train you to do independent research, so you need to explain why this is something you want to do.
Your motivation might be because you love research, you are inspired by a particular topic or question you want to answer, you want to teach at the university level (which nearly always requires a PhD), you think it sounds fun to spend half a decade pursuing the scholarly life, your dream job (in or outside academia) will require or benefit greatly if you have a PhD. Being good at school or not knowing what else to do are not great reasons here.
One example: Years after reviewing a graduate fellowship application, I still remember a woman whose dream was to run a tropical rainforest research station for undergraduates to study abroad, like one where she had studied. Her passion for the experience of both research and teaching was clear throughout her application, and totally convinced me that she should pursue a PhD.
- Formulate your research vision. This is hard, but critical. You'll have to write a full proposal for your application, but initially a core question is enough to contact a potential advisor.
Imagine what you would be excited to have answered five years down the line, when you can put those three magical letters after your name. Try to get beyond a topic (climate change, ecosystem services) into a puzzle or question or case study that you want to investigate.
The more specific you can be, the more focused and serious you look to potential advisors. Don’t forget to think about what impact you want to have with your research (are you trying to advance basic knowledge, inform management, change policy?) to design your question accordingly.
Don’t worry about being too tied down to the project you propose, and don’t emphasize that everything is subject to change. In my experience, this is just assumed in research in general, and for a PhD project in particular. The more clearly you can articulate an exciting but doable project, the more convincing you are as a potential researcher. It’s really common for PhD projects to change dramatically in response to opportunities, evolving interests, or other changing conditions (in my case, from thinking I would study tropical forests to actually studying vineyards in California). So sound confident!
This piece of advice links closely with #3, because it’s important that you find potential advisors who are doing work that is closely enough related to what you want to do that they will be excited to work with you.
- Identify potential PhD advisors. The amount of interaction you have with your supervisor varies by field (in my experience, more in natural sciences and less in social sciences and humanities), but in my opinion this is critical to your future success in science (and data supports this). You want to find someone who meets two criteria (which my mentor Pam Matson summed up as "brilliant, and nice"):
- S/he is a good researcher (working with questions, methods, projects that you find interesting, and can help you learn in these areas). You can identify this from their track record- their papers, website, CV. This should be done before contacting them.
-S/he is a good person (someone whose integrity you respect, and whose personality you will get along with over many years in sometimes stressful situations). After you find someone who meets the first criteria above and have established your research compatibility, be sure to assess this second criteria before accepting a position in their lab. Assessing this requires talking to people who know them personally (be sure to directly ask their current and former grad students "Would you recommend joining Dr. X's lab?") and forming your own impression from meeting them in person.
I suggest you at least skim one paper of theirs before writing them, so that you can mention something specific that stands out to you in their work. Don’t worry if you don’t understand all the details and methods. Hopefully they write clearly enough that you can understand the research question and their answer to it, and determine if it’s something that interests you.
- Identify funding sources. Science is supported by convincing people with money that you have a good idea that is worth pursuing. PhD students (at least in most sciences) are generally paid a stipend that covers tuition and enough salary to live on. This can come from two basic sources: a scholarship or fellowship granted to you personally by a funder or your department, or a grant for a research project granted to your advisor.
In the first scenario, you will be in a great position to pursue the questions that most interest you if you are able to secure your own funding. Further, a lot of success in a research career depends on writing successful grants, so it’s good to start practicing now. These sources are usually national, so it depends where you are applying, and will require some digging around to find them. I'm most familiar with the US funding system, which includes federal agencies like the NSF Graduate Fellow Research Program, scholarships from NASA and the EPA, and university fellowships (which often are specific to your department, and may or may not require a separate application).
In the second scenario, if your potential advisor has a grant to pursue a line of research you’re excited about, that’s great. You will hopefully be part of a team that can make your research more collaborative and fun, as well as probably progress faster than starting from scratch. Your advisor may be more invested in your research, and better able to mentor you in research design and analysis, if it’s more closely aligned with her own interests. Still, be cautious about joining established projects with set deadlines and deliverables – you want to make sure you will have space to develop your own ideas, not only implement out someone else's.
Mentioning that you are applying for your own funding to a potential advisor shows that you are serious and well-informed. Some lucky departments guarantee graduate student funding- this is great, but you’ll still be expected (or at least strongly encouraged) to apply for your own money. And generally advisors appreciate if you apply for your own money as well. If you get it, they’ll still have funding to hire another qualified student, plus get extra-smart you as a bonus.
- Contact your potential advisor. I recommend a succinct email that expresses your interest, highlights your strengths, and clearly asks them to get back to you. Keep it snappy- professors get an insane amount of email.
Here’s my suggestion for a rough template to get you started:
Dear Dr. X,
I came across your work through X (conference/paper/my professor X’s recommendation). I am very interested in your approach to (topic) using (method/specific thing they do that interests you).
I’m writing to inquire if you are accepting PhD students in your lab for fall 2016?
I am aiming to pursue a PhD dissertation focusing on X topic, specifically looking at the question of X puzzle in X case for X purpose.
My background is in X bachelors from X university/Y masters from Y university. My research to date has focused on X, which I investigated most recently in my master’s thesis on X topic in X place, finding that X key highlight (please see attached thesis FYI). I have written about this work in a popular science blog here (link) and am currently preparing the manuscript for submission to the journal of X with my supervisor X.
I also have experience in X business/NGO/policy/government, where I accomplished X. For more details, please see my attached CV.
Regarding funding, I am currently applying for funding from X, X and X scholarship agencies to support the project I’ve outlined above. If there are any additional funding sources that you think might be a good fit to support this work, I would really appreciate any tips. And of course, if you have any currently funded projects that could support a PhD student, I would love to hear about them.
Thank you very much for your time and I look forward to hearing from you.
If you don’t hear back from them in 2 weeks, resend your message with a polite note at the top: “Dear Dr. X, I thought my earlier message may have caught you at a busy time. I’m still very keen to pursue a PhD in your lab, and hoping you can let me know if you are accepting new students next fall. Thank you, X”
If there’s someone you’re really excited about who hasn’t gotten back to you, consider picking up the phone to call them. Bold move, but it just might work! People get a bajillion emails, but few phone calls nowadays. Practice a shortened version of the text above to ask them.
It’s smart to apply to at least several schools (I just checked and I applied to seven PhD programs, which now seems excessive- but at least three is good). You don’t know where you’ll get in, and you’ll have to consider personal factors about where you want to live, so it’s good to have options.
Most advisors will be contacted by many students and will have many applicants for each open position in their lab. So, you both are on the lookout for the person who will be the best fit! Most advisors will understand this (some may even ask where else you are applying).
That said, if you apply for external fellowships, you may have to specify your top choice for where you want to go and who you want to work with (depending on the fellowship). In this case, it’s important to share your plans with your potential advisor and get their agreement to support your application. In any case, if you really click with a potential advisor, consider asking them to give you feedback on your external fellowship application (for something like NSF GRFP, not for their own university applications where they would have a conflict of interest). Hopefully their comments can help you strengthen your proposal.
In any case, good communication with a potential advisor is important, so ask them questions to clarify expectations or any points of confusion.
Hope this helps- let me know if you have any comments!